Weird World: The Unexplained Mystery of The Flannan Lighthouse

Here at The MALESTROM HQ we love ourselves a good mystery, especially one that’s been rumbling on for some time. This particular one has had people scratching their heads for over 117 years. In December 1900, three lighthouse keepers,Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald McArthur, who were stationed on an isolated group of islands in the North Atlantic, approximately 20 miles from the Outer Hebrides, disappeared without trace. Much speculation and theories abound, but the truth behind this unsolved tale has never come to light. Was a freak accident involved here? Alien abductors or something supernatural from the sea? Lets take a closer look at the unexplained mystery of The Flannan Lighthouse.

The lighthouse was built in the mid 1890s on the island known as Eilean Mor (Big Isle). It’s named after St. Flannen, a 6th century Irish Bishop who later became a saint. He built a chapel on the island and for centuries shepherds used to bring over sheep to the island to graze but wouldn’t stay the night, herders called the place “the other country,”and were scared of spirits thought to haunt the uninhabited isle. The work crafting the lighthouse was dangerous and difficult with the wild winds and waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the logistical nightmare of actually getting building supplies onto the island. The lighthouse with it’s three keepers began operating it’s large paraffin beam on December 7th 1899, where it ran without problems until almost exactly a year later.

In December 1900, reports came in from from a number of ships such as The Fairwind and the Archtor, who reported that the guiding light from the Flannan Lighthouse wasn’t operating. Nothing was done immediately about the problem, probably due to the fact the relief ship, The Hesperus, was due to sail out to the islands later that month. The Captain of the SS Hesperus, James Harvey, was tasked with delivering supplies and a relief lighthouse keeper, Joseph Moore as part of a regular rotation. When they arrived at the island, having been delayed by a storm, they found the odd sight that none of the keepers were there to greet them. There were also no provisions boxes set out ready to be re-stocked, as well as the flag on the flagstaff that hadn’t been raised. A flare was sent up to attract any attention, but to no avail. Relief keeper Moore rowed ashore and climbed the steep stone steps up to the lighthouse.

His personal accounts from the time said Moore felt a large sense of foreboding when approaching the building. The first thing he noticed was the unlocked door of the Flannan lighthouse then in the entrance that one oil skin jacket sat on the hooks where there would usually be three. In the kitchen he found half eaten food and chairs overturned. Spookiest of all was the clock on the wall which had stopped. A subsequent search of the island by the ships crew found terrible damage at their landing stage with bent iron railings and the iron railway by the path completely wrenched out of the concrete all seemingly from a huge storm, but the search didn’t turn up any of the missing men. All three had completely vanished.

One strange clue found was in the lighthouses logbook, which contained some unusual entries from keeper Thomas Marshall…

December 12th:

“Gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable.”

“Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Donald McArthur crying.”

December 13th:

Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying”. Later: “Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed.”

December 14th:

No log.

December 15 (written on a slate):

1pm. Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”

The logbook entries were odd for a number of reasons. They were meant to be about the running of the lighthouse rather than these much more personal reports. That included the account of McArthur crying, which would seem out of character for a salty sea dog with a tough reputation as an experienced seafarer. Added to this the account of the men praying. Robert Muirhead, Superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, part of the official investigation into the case, knew all the keepers, and remarked that none of them were “particularly God-fearing, or prone to prayer.” Perhaps strangest of all, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13, or 14. Despite clear entries about the ferocity of the winds at that time.

After the search Captain Harvey sent a telegram to the mainland, which in turn was forwarded to the Northern Lighthouse Board Headquarters in Edinburgh. It noted the disappearance of the keepers, likely down to a “dreadful accident” or that they may have been “blown over cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane.”

Robert Muirhead from The Northern Lighthouse Board carried out an official investigation into the disappearances, this was from his official report…

I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.”

That report is all well and good, but it’s simply one man’s opinion, the evidence at hand suggested something else was at play here. What wasn’t accounted for was the combined years of know-how of the experienced lighthouse keepers. Why would one of the keepers have gone out without his oil skins? The only set of clothing left hung up belonged to Donald McArthur. Even if he’d had to rush out in an emergency to aid the other men, would he have gone out without his vital oil skins? And why would all three have left together when it was strictly against all rules of the Northern Lighthouse Board? All knew someone needed to man the post at all times, so it seems unthinkable they would venture out at the very same time.

Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Superintendent Robert Muirhead

Folklore has told that when Joseph Moore first entered the lighthouse to find the men, three odd birds flew out and strange seaweed strands were left near the logbook and on the stairs. Many have claimed a sea monster was responsible for the men vanishing, alien abduction or a supernatural presence forcing their demise. Likely it was none of these more fanciful theories, but regardless of how these poor men came to disappear, the case of The Flannan Lighthouse will possibly forever remain a very strange unexplained mystery.

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